Journalism and the conversation of democracy: The legacy of Stuart Adam

January 7, 2019

If you are a journalist, or someone who cares about journalism, you should know the work of Stuart Adam. He was Canada’s most influential journalism scholar and educator. He died in Ottawa the day after Christmas — Boxing Day — of complications from a brain tumor. He almost reached 80.

These two obituaries — one from the Ottawa Citizen, the other from his home base at Carleton University — cover his academic accomplishments and reflect the affection of his closest friends and colleagues. I am one of them.

(When Stuart married Pegie Stark, a brilliant designer and former teacher at Poynter, I served as best man.)  

To help preserve his legacy, I will recall two of Stuart’s most powerful ideas: one about the best shape for journalism education, the other about how to decide what makes a work of journalism good. As someone who once worked as a reporter for the Toronto Star and who then would reach for the sky of scholarship, Stuart could work both ends of the intellectual spectrum, from theory to practice. His ideas could be put to good use.

Journalism as a liberal art

In 1977, I entered the world of daily journalism after formative years as a young English professor and writing teacher. I was struck by an essay in the Columbia Journalism Review that captured the identity crisis in journalism education at the collegiate level. Some professors, it argued, were “Chi Squares,” devoted to quantitative social science. They conducted surveys and published unreadable essays in Journalism Quarterly. Down the hall were the Green Eyeshades, burnt-out copy editors who tried to teach bored teenagers how to write a lead. They taught journalism as if it were nothing more than a trade — like plumbing.

Stuart always imagined a third way. In his mind, journalism could be taught as a liberal art, a set of practices invigorated by the traditional academic disciplines: literature (for writing), philosophy (for applied ethics), political science (for news judgment), statistics (for numeracy), art (for visual expressions of news) and so on.

Over 30 years of study and teaching, Stuart built these ideas into a system, one expressed in a book we wrote and edited together in 2006: “Journalism: The Democratic Craft.” Although I am listed as co-editor, Stuart did the heavy lifting. When the book, a collection of 33 formative essays by journalists and scholars, went nowhere, Stuart expressed his disappointment. The problem was not that it made no money. He mourned that students would not get access to it because neither the social science nor the trade school crowd would assign it. “They don’t get it,” he would say.

By the turn of the century, he began to worry that all the enthusiasm for reform of journalism education was being drained by the wonders of technology in the digital age, so that the J-word (journalism) seemed to be shrinking as the T-word (technology) grew and grew.

 

What makes a work of journalism good?

The best way to explain Stuart’s thinking about journalism as a liberal art and as a democratic craft is to track back to its origins. He reached a moment of clarity, he said, when he accepted the task of judging in Canada a journalism competition. As often happens, the judges were presented with nominated stories from many newspapers from which they would choose the winners. But on the basis of what criteria? These turned out to be vague. Always the systematic thinker (even when learning golf), Stuart created for himself a grading rubric. It had five parts:

News Judgment: A great story should communicate something interesting and important about our world and the times we live in.

Reporting: The focus of any important work of journalism should be derived from evidence; gathered from traditional and non-traditional sources of narrative and information; and be work that is gathered and thoroughly checked.

Language: Excellence in the use of language extends from “the civic to the literary,” either by making hard facts easy reading, or by telling stories in compelling ways.

Narrative: Works of journalism could be expressed in a rich variety of ways: some traditional, using the inverted pyramid, and some experimental, such as serial narration or work that included rich visual elements.

Interpretation: It was one thing to gather and report facts. It required another level of critical thinking to analyze those facts, or to organize them in a way that makes sense to the reader. Scoops could not only come as flashes of information, but also as new enlightened ways of seeing.  

I imagine Stuart as a contest judge, marking off a grid for each submitted story with the appropriate score, with 10 as the highest. Judgement 9, Evidence 7, Language 8, Narrative 9, Analysis 10 for a total of 43 points out of a possible 50. On to the next submission.  

I watched with interest as Stuart transformed his grading rubric into a rigorous classroom exercise. Everyone would get five stories to study. Students (sometimes teachers) would be asked to rank them.Then came the question: “Why did you rank the profile of the mayor above the story of the rescue of the lost child?” He would then introduce the five criteria. Gut feeling gave way to reason and sound judgment.

 

Enter the Committee of Concerned Journalists

During the 1990s, as Stuart advanced and perfected these ideas, a group of concerned journalists conducted a series of public meetings, trying to distill from working journalists their best values and practices. The results were published in a book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel titled “The Elements of Journalism.” The committee came to Poynter with this question: What makes a journalist competent?

With Stuart’s help I turned to the Poynter faculty for answers. We came up with two frames for thinking of competency in journalism. What does an individual journalist need to know? And what does a news organization need to know?

After weeks of work in faculty work groups, leading to a public hearing, we presented what we still call the Pyramid of Competence. At first we resisted introducing another pyramid into the understanding of journalism practice, but it turned out to have these benefits: A two-dimensional pyramid has cornerstones, a foundational ground level, and upward momentum leading to an apex.

We suddenly realized that Stuart’s rubric could apply.

One cornerstone was News Judgment. (If you lacked it, you were not fully competent). Another was Reporting, the ability to gather, sort out and evaluate evidence. Between them on the ground level were Language and Narrative (we put them in a single box) and Interpretation, sound analysis based on critical thinking.

Innovation came in a second level with three boxes: Audio/Visual Literacy, Technology, and Numeracy (the dark hole of American journalism). A higher level had two more boxes: Civic Literacy and Cultural Literacy. At the apex came words like Mission and Purpose, standards derived from ethics, law, and theories of democracy.

Here, represented in text, is the resulting pyramid:

 

                     MISSION

              CIVICS * CULTURE

     AUDIO/VISUAL * TECHNOLOGY * NUMERACY

JUDGMENT * LANGUAGE * ANALYSIS * EVIDENCE

 

Over more than two decades, Stuart and I hammered at the pyramid relentlessly, seeing if it could stand up over time to the stormy winds of change. What about Data Visualization? Where would it go? It could go in reporting, numeracy and visual literacy, creating a cross-disciplinary chain of influence. What about knowledge of the audience? It could go in news judgement and civic literacy.

(For the fullest articulation of the Pyramid of Competence we invite you to read this long essay, but respectfully suggest that you finish this one first.)

The high point of this effort involved a pilgrimage to Poynter from the accrediting agency of AEJMC, the organization of journalism and media educators. The academic world had turned its interest from input — What teachers should teach? — to outcomes — what students need to learn. Under the leadership of Trevor Brown, long-time dean at Indiana University, we were invited to present our ideas to the members of the accrediting council, which they used to inform and reform the articulation of their standards.

We have waited too long to hear the words of the master himself. As you will see, Stuart wrote in a style that stood astride the chasm between the practical world of journalism and the theoretical world of scholarship. (I have taken the liberty of breaking a long academic paragraph into shorter ones.)

“In a nutshell, I believe that much of journalism teaching  — whether it is concerned with professional practices or with social and political effects  — is too functional and too divorced from the higher reaches of authorship and thought.

“Professional practitioners are inclined to define journalism in terms of limited newsroom conceptions and thus jettison any consideration of journalism’s poetics or its ambitious forms; sociologies, communicologists, and political scientists are inclined to read journalism functionally rather than intrinsically and thus contribute to the leveling impulse that originates with the practitioners.

“Neither the practitioners nor the social scientists are sufficiently inclined to lift journalism out of the bureaucratic settings in which journalists are likely to operate and imagine journalism as the best journalists do as they make news judgments, engage in reporting, and compose accounts of the world.

“In the meantime, the liberal arts are organized for the most part within disciplines rather than across disciplines, and they contribute only randomly to the student’s real education. The dividend of all this considered together is that students in journalism schools are too likely to end up stunted in their moral, intellectual, and aesthetic capacities, and too formed by bureaucratic needs rather than journalistic possibilities and obligations. Put a little differently, I believe that the language and concepts of traditional journalism instruction are either too lean or too bureaucratic to inspire passion or to encourage the creative spirit. A great opportunity is lost.”

Faced with Stuart’s objections to traditional journalism education, I would press him to help me see how his vision of reform could be put into action — that is, turned into a curriculum comprising a rich variety of courses, readings, class exercises, and writing and reporting assignments. One answer was to refer back to the table of contents or our collection of essays “Journalism: The Democratic Craft.”

It is impossible to understand the legacy of Stuart Adam without reference to the cultural scholar James Carey, to whom Stuart was devoted. Carey, a spritely Rhode Islander, was dean at the University of Illinois for many years and migrated late in his life to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where he launched a doctoral program. I often introduced Stuart as the Jim Carey of Canada; and Jim as the Stuart Adam of the United States.

Carey was among the most influential scholars of journalism in the 20th century, a pioneer in the field known as “cultural studies,” a short man with a crisp voice who might, over a beer or two, remind you that this was the year that the Red Sox would win the World Series and to never forget that “news is an expression of culture.”

Jim and Stuart, who I believe met at Poynter, became fast friends. In Stuart’s words, they became “mates,” expressing their Scotch-Irish enthusiasms in both professional and social settings.

A January birthday party for Stuart in St. Petersburg  — probably his 60th — became a Robbie Burns Night where the birthday boy read from the poet in a perfect Scottish accent. The Irish Jim Carey countered with his favorite passage from James Joyce, the ending of the short story “The Dead”:

“Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

There was a knock at the door. Pegie Stark, soon to be Stuart’s bride, had hired a bagpiper.

When I would talk to Jim Carey in private, he would meditate on the odd tension that existed in the soul of Stuart Adam:  a rigorous, formal, almost Calvinistic aestheticism in the pursuit of ideas, set aside in social settings in preference to the rowdy hockey fan or Scottish berserker.   

It was in 1991 that both Stuart and Jim found themselves at Poynter. You could feel their intellectual energy and personal charisma throughout the building. Poynter librarian David Shedden interviewed them both. At the end, David asked Jim if he had “a final thought” on his career as a teacher, author and scholar. His answer serves as a perfect eulogy for both great journalism scholars, the one from Canada and the other from a troubled country just south of the St. Lawrence River.

“There are no final thoughts,” said Carey, who then quoted Kenneth Burke: “‘Life is a conversation. When we enter it’s already going on. We try to catch the drift of it. We exit before it’s over.’

“The first lesson any pragmatist learns is that at the hour of our death we’re rewriting our biography for the last time. And then the first hour into our death, someone else rewrites the biography for us: our children, our spouses, our friends. ‘Do you remember what he was like? What he said? What he did?’

“So in that sense life is a conversation that continuously goes on. It continuously renews itself, and therefore renews you. Our work is a matter of self-renewal, which is a renewal of the other. No one has the last word. There are no final thoughts. There is no end to the conversation.”

Get your copy of “Journalism — The Democratic Craft” here.

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